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How we excavate in TT99

Group photo

Unlike other parts of the Near East, it is traditional in Egypt that the digging work is done by employing the inhabitants of the local villages. In Luxor particularly, foreign expeditions are a not unimportant source of casual employment for the local populace. The manner in which work operates is that the Egyptians are doing this digging under close supervision from a member of the archaeological mission, which person is there to move in and deal with any particular unusual matters (features, finds) which pop up.

Just in case you are wondering, the donkey in the photo is an important member of the team: he brings along each day the water for the workmen, drinking water and water for building work. For this he (= his owner) gets paid the same rate as a workman who carries baskets.

As an introduction to the following description, you might like to look at a video of the excavation of the courtyard. There you'll see all the stages described here. The video is 408k in size.

Setting up a pulley

The number of men used varies according to the circumstances. In a tomb shaft, it is impossible to have more than one man working with a trowel at one time, and the others in the shaft are clearing the loose material and organising getting the material up the shaft. In TT99 this had to be done with a tripod and pulley, both inside and outside the tomb.

Down a shaft it is dusty and dirty. We pathetic foreigners rotate every half hour or so, but the Egyptians stay down there for one to two hours at a time, and take it in turn to come up for air, a drink, and a cigarette. In 1997 and 1998, during Ramadan, our workmen stayed at the bottom of our 15 m deep shaft for the whole day, not drinking, eating, or smoking. We were most impressed at how they stuck at it despite the strenuous activity.

Here you see some "real" archaeology. The courtyard has been laid out with a grid to facilitate locating finds and features, and every so often the digging has to be stopped so a "feature" (an interesting arrangement of objects, part of a building, etc) can be drawn. Here a pottery assemblage is being brushed down while preparations are made to draw it.


Setting up

Working in the open is much hotter, but the air is better. Two or more men do the digging, with us intervening as necessary (above, in front of the tomb). They use a combination of trowels, their bare hands, and the local fass (a mattock); usually one man works at loosening the debris and sifting through it while another fills baskets. At right, you see us working above the tomb.

Above tomb

The workmen are always supervised. This is NOT because we don't trust our men; on the contrary, we're there to help and support them, in case they run into a problem. The fact that we're interested in what they're doing, and chat away with them as best our Arabic allows makes for a much more interesting working time.

Path to dump

From the place of work, a chain of workmen carries the baskets of debris up to the dump. The basket carriers form the majority of the workers, and they are of all ages. Most foreign missions employ a reis or foreman, who is in charge of the local workmen, and is particularly responsible for keeping the basket carriers moving, since as the day drags on, they do tend to walk more and more slowly. Nonetheless, the amount of debris moved really is substantial.


When its reaches the dump, the debris is sieved to ensure that nothing is missed. The work of the sievers is very hot, and they tend to be the oldest members of our crew, yet they sit out in the sun for all of the working day. The working day in Luxor tends to be 6 hours long, and the men prefer to work from 7:00 to 13:00; they have a half hour breakfast break, usually about 9:30 to 10:00. But, as I said above, this doesn't happen in Ramadan.

An essential member of the team is our Egyptian Inspector, who is an employee of the Supreme Council for Antiquity. Every foreign mission is assigned an inspector by the local Inspectorate; he or she is responsible for representing Egypt's interests while the work is going on, but is also there to help the foreigners. It is essential to develop a good working relationship with your inspector--she/she is a friend as well as a colleague--and it helps everyone. Inspectors are Egyptology graduates; most live locally, but some do have to stay in government rest houses as their families come from elsewhere. The Supreme Council has a lot of difficulty retaining inspectors, as they are very poorly paid for what they do, and there is the attraction of getting a guide licence and working with tourists, which is much more lucrative. There are different grades of Inspectors. Some are employees, others are on special contracts, and there are Chief Inspectors and a Director for each site. Being an inspector in Luxor must be difficult, because there are always lots of foreign missions around, and the local population are always trying to do something they shouldn't!

Inspector and guards

Our Inspector (Ramadan Ahmed Aly) and guards from the 1997-8 season.


The guards are also very important. With the history of thefts in all Egyptian sites, particularly ones like Thebes, guards have been a part of a site for many years. They are employees of the Supreme Council, and look after the tomb. They work alternate days, 24 hours on, 24 hours off; each day, in our area, there are four guards. Where there are tourist tombs, they also check the tickets and keep an eye on the tourists--our tomb is in the same group as Rekhmire and Sennefer, and so in a normal year the guards are busy with tourists. But they also drop round for a chat, and they play an essential role in bringing us tea while we work. To show how kind they are, they even did this in Ramadan, when they themselves aren't allowed to drink from sunrise to sunset.


Processing the material as it is found is a major task. In Egypt, finds which need to be registered often are appearing at such a rate that it needs 2 or 3 people to fill out the forms. TT99 is no exception, and in the first 3 seasons of work it was as much as we could do to keep on top of this material; if you leave it too long, some possible incidental information will be lost.

The first stage is to separate out all the different basic types: we tend to divide the material into finds which need registration slips, pottery, mummy linen, bones, and plain wood. This is a horrible job, particularly dealing with dusty, dirty mummy bandages. Once that is done, each category is treated separately. Pottery, bones, and textiles are put aside for specialist attention, while the other finds are recorded using this slip below:

Record slip

This slip contains all the basic information needed, and is later entered into the computer, back at the dig house/hotel. Objects are also photographed at a convenient moment, and those which are capable of being drawn in a meaningful way are recorded, usually during a study season--it is usual only to draw material which you are certain you will be publishing. Life is too short, and pockets not deep enough, to do everything, unfortunately.

© Nigel Strudwick 1997-2018